The Dixie Chicks, target of the (at least) Two-Month Hate back in 2003 for daring to speak against the autocrat, have a movie coming out called (in perfect contempt for Laura Ingraham’s book of the same name) Shut Up and Sing. The trailer reminded me of the bad old days when war supporters, so hopped up on their own sense of moral superiority and their supposed superior claims to patriotic loyalty, were only too glad to accuse opponents of the war of treason, apologising for despotism and every form of hostility to America. Those were the heady days when certain people wrote about the evil “unpatriotic conservatives” (and, strangely enough, they were not talking about themselves). Actually, those habits have not disappeared, but they have become muted as fewer and fewer true believers in the war remain. It is easier to laugh them to scorn today, but in the ugly spring of ’03 it was not the sort of thing people with careers to worry about did very often. Perhaps that was why the story of the Dixie Chicks and the organised hate directed against them struck a chord, because they were people with quite a lot to lose (even if they didn’t realise what they were getting themselves into) who nonetheless said something, however minor and irrelevant it was. Too many prominent people on the right who knew better and should have said something more significant bit their tongues and covered their own, er, interests to their everlasting discredit.
The creepy little rallies where Dixie Chicks CDs were crushed or burned en masse were a perfect symbol of the lunacy that captured so much of the country at the time. It was said that the freedom of speech does not entail immunity from criticism, which is perfectly true. In a sane society, however, a few words of mockery of the Leader would be met with indifference because of their irrelevance. The normal person’s response to this sort of statement would have been, “Oh, okay, some singer took a shot at Bush. Why should I care?” The jingo’s reaction to it was that this was an act of subversion to be punished with coordinated boycotts and hateful speech. No, agreement with the policy is not enough for some of these people–lockstep obedience to the presidential cult must also be maintained. I suppose it is perfectly within the rights of people to destroy their own property because the artist has offended their servile attachment to a political leader, though I have to wonder what it says about the intelligence or wisdom of the people in question that they think this is a necessary or important thing to do.
In my little counter-protest, my impotent gesture against the collective madness, I bought the Dixie Chicks’ new album, never having particularly cared for their music before, but found their hit “Travelling Soldier” to be a genuinely decent country song. For some reason that I believe was actually quite distinct, though never entirely separate, from my opposition to the war, I sympathised with the Dixie Chicks. This was not particularly because I liked them all that much; they ought to have realised there would be a negative reaction (whether there should be such a reaction is a separate question), so their exclamations of disbelief that it was happening always struck me as rather strained. But I instinctively resented the presumption of the jingoes that these women had somehow turned against their country because they had criticised the President. What a disgusting notion that is. It is the antithesis of republicanism. It is certainly not a healthy understanding of patriotism to my mind. The jingoes’ conflation of state and nation, and also the conflation of the state and the politicians that serve in government was all rather appalling to me. We do not say, l’Etat, c’est Bush, but to see the reaction against the Chicks’ comments you might think that these folks were all hearty followers of Bodin magnifying the glories of the absolute ruler.
I don’t much care for celebrities who think that we care what they think about politics and political leaders, but I have never assumed that there was something inherently wrong with their doing so. Obviously, they do not forfeit their rights when they go on stage. I have also never cared for the strange cult of the Presidency in this country, and I suspect I will never understand why it has such a hold over so many people, and here it reached such a level of hysterical excess that I was rather stunned. On the topic of presidential cult, NBC has refused to run ads for the movie because they “cannot accept these spots as they are disparaging to President Bush.” Disparaging to President Bush! Not that! Heaven forefend!
What sort of person identifies his country with its head of state? Yes, the President represents the nation in certain respects, but he is not himself the nation; presidents, even as absurdly powerful as we have let them become, are not kings; they are not sacred and anointed embodiments of the people, and normally most of us would never dream of investing them with such significance. But for some reason on the cusp of a war that our government was planning to start, the President acquired some sort of mystical significance that apparently made him unassailable. So the Chicks’ lese majeste could not be tolerated. But what sort of ideological fanatic destroys a music CD because the performers who made that CD made political comments he finds objectionable? Would they burn their own copy of a book if its writer had said the same thing? The question is not a trivial one, as it gets to the heart of the matter.
Obviously performers run the risk of ruining their business when they enter into the political fray, but how pathetically sensitive and insecure were these president-worshippers that they could not stand to hear someone denigrate the President? We are not speaking of a Jane Fonda who openly cavorts with the enemy in time of war, but someone who spoke against a servant of the people who was disgracefully precipitating a war. Note that the words that caused them all their grief were not aimed at the war itself, much less the soldiers or the country they were supposedly betraying. They did not say, “We are ashamed of Texas,” or “We are ashamed of America,” but rather quite appropriately as patriots of Texas said that they were ashamed that Bush was from their state. As they should have been. Many of us today are still ashamed to have Mr. Bush as the President of the United States. He has brought dishonour and disrepute on the country that we love, and yet somehow in the warped understanding of our times it is we who are somehow lacking in loyalty to our country when we speak against him. Even more outrageous than the appalling war that Mr. Bush started is the sick perversion in our politics that has tried to transform loyalty to the President himself into the working definition of patriotism.
The trailer also reminded me of this item from Chronicles‘ website from 2003 by Aaron Wolf, who concluded with these lines:
The most telling comment, however, came from National Review Online’s Stanley Kurtz, who chose, of all things, to charge the Chicks with not being Dixie enough. “No part of this nation has a better understanding of honor than the South. Natalie Maines has impugned the honor of our president, and of our nation—and done so in front of strangers.” (As I recall, the Yankees arrested President Jefferson Davis and forced Dixie to be part of their “nation,” Ã la the Soviets and East Berlin.)“Doesn’t she understand,” Kurtz, the bold defender of the Southern way of life, continued, “that her remarks, although certainly political, have gone beyond politics to touch and harm something deeper [the limits of dissent? John Ashcroft, are you there?]. I would like her to try to make things right. But first she needs to understand what she’s done. If Natalie Maines is really a chick from Dixie, she’ll do the right thing.” Apparently, the “right thing” is to keep your mouth shut, unless you are part of the “coalition of the willing” and are ready to sacrifice American blood and treasure for dominion over palm and pine—or, in this case, dune and well.